Many people switch off when it comes to politics — and rightly so. Politicians are typically disassociated with the working classes, and for many it’s either a case of fierce loyalty to the upheld order of things or disillusionment and cynicism. It would take a real rule-breaker to change the norms, and through telling four stories at a unique moment in history, Knock Down The House shows us this can be possible. Set over the course of the two years running up to the 2018 elections, the film follows the stories of four female campaigners — Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearingen, Amy Vilela and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who shake up the norms, challenging what it means to truly hold power and influence in the USA.
Knock Down The House
Director: Rachel Lears
Release Date: March 10, 2019 (SXSW); May 1, 2019 (Netflix)
From the outset, we’re shown the stories of these grassroots campaigners, together with their teams, pitting themselves against much wealthier and longer-standing politicians. But these aren’t just patriarchy-busting, female-empowerment stories. They’re for everyone, traversing domains of race, class and establishment. Ocasio-Cortez, running against Joe Crowley, New York City’s most powerful Democrat, without a challenger in 14 years — admits the odds herself: “It would take an insurgent, outside grassroots campaigner who’s a woman of color from the Bronx.”
We get a good sense of the personality of each candidate. Cori Bush is running for St Louis, Missouri — a pastor, parent, and activist, she believes in justice after the untold number of unprovoked deaths and attacks on black people at the hands of the State. There’s also Paula Jean Swearingen, a native of Mullens, West Virginia, who fights for the beautiful landscape she grew up in, which is under increasing threat from toxic environmental pollution. Third is Amy Vilela, a congressional candidate for Nevada’s 4th district. Tragically, her 22-year-old daughter passed away after being refused healthcare when she was unable to show proof of medical insurance at the ER. Vilela is a grieving mother fighting for the 30k people who lose loved ones due to a lack of insurance on the health system in the US every year.
And finally, there’s Alexandira Ocasio-Cortez. Of the four women, she is the most focused-on and appears to lead the charge, though it’s the movement of all these women combined that makes them stronger. A fantastic element of the film is seeing the women attend each other’s speeches where they can, calling each other to give advice and encouragement, and the sense of solidarity between them. They’re part of an emerging political movement that puts aside the traditional order and works in favour of the disadvantaged, the downtrodden and those without a voice.
Ocasio-Cortez was nominated by her brother, Gabriel, for the run for Congress. It’s an underdog story and by showing footage of her with her family, opening the film by following Alexandria into her family restaurant, and even showing old photographs of her father (who passed away when she was in college), she becomes everyone’s hero. I for one like her: I think she’s a great role model with maturity and confidence beyond her years. Anyone who has listened to her keynote speech at SXSW this year can see that she’s the real deal: authentic, passionate and dedicated. One sequence that I enjoyed was seeing her at home in her flat with her partner, paging through her rival Joe Crowley’s leaflet. “Look at this Victoria’s Secret magazine,” she says disdainfully. “Does it tell you the date of the election? Or his policies? He doesn’t even live in this city!” Her passion and playful personality are clear to see, endearing her to viewers.
When director Lears decided to start the project after the results of the 2018 primary, her strategy was to cover the ground-breaking moment in US history signalled by the results of the primary: she stated that “after having a baby in 2016, I thought I might take a break from political filmmaking—but the day after the election, I knew I had no choice.” I feel that her vision to tell the ‘big story’ has been achieved – as if the documentary itself was a winning campaign to help others open their eyes to the empowering movement of people in the States. I can, however, see how criticism might be levelled against Ocasio-Cortez from established leaders and their following. There are murmurs of opposition during a rally which both she and her opponent attend. Yet there isn’t much discussion of the other side, only criticism. Naturally, this no-holds-barred account of the elections from a single side meant that she will have ruffled a few feathers along the way. Additionally, I feel as though some of the darker side of politicians’ campaigns are left out of the picture, though maybe this makes it appealing to a younger audience and turns Congress into more of an aspirational route.
The documentary drew attention to itself right away, with talking heads and characters whipping round to chat to the camera. Sometimes intimate shots of Ocasio-Cortez applying makeup or making tea with her partner felt too staged, and I felt that it unravelled the construct of the fly-on-the-wall documentary style of the film. But there were other moments where I felt really affected, and despite the filmmakers’ decision to consciously manipulate — or ‘guide’ is perhaps a softer word — spectator’s emotions, I enjoyed the ride. Unlike a piece of political filmmaking like Primary (a film about the 1960 Wisconsin election between JFK and Hubert Humphrey) this time I felt I had more in common with the women running for office and that I could align more with their points of view.
The everyday people that these four women choose to represent often have lives torn apart by ill health and the failure of the healthcare system; unprovoked gun crime; or an unmanageable living wage. Ocasio-Cortez’ strategy is to win the vote of such people – those whom she identifies with – and to take power back from a man uninterested in his population. There is a conscious effort on Lears’ part to show that Ocasio-Cortez makes an appearance even at the smallest forums, while her opponent does not – and she’s livid. “We need to stop making excuses for absentee leadership. I’m the only one in this room running for office!” Yet what I felt the film really could make more of was not the women, but the people they fight for. I would have liked to have perhaps seen a few interviews with members of the public on their views on the elections and the candidates, for a bigger picture.
Yet as it is, given time constraints and its political agenda, the film makes good headway, and it’s clear by the time Ocasio-Cortez wins her landslide 82% majority victory over Joe Crowley that she’s something truly special. It’s an exhilarating moment, emotional even for those of different political persuasions. While it might be clear that by showing the tireless efforts of campaigners behind the scenes the film was intended to influence viewers, I enjoyed the ride.